An Overview of American Terrorism
One of the bitterest and saddest points in American history is the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Many people today associate the Klan with being a distant memory or some movement from a bygone era. People tend to diminish the effect of the Klan on American society (perhaps trying not to remember it) but it was a force of social and cultural change that profoundly impacted American culture and still exerts force today.
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) first began in the 1860s in reaction to Reconstruction and the Freedman’s Bureau. The KKK targeted newly freed blacks and white sympathizers in order to disrupt reconstruction efforts. The goal to restore white supremacy remains the same for the KKK since its inception.
Nathan Bedford Forrest First Grand Wizard of the KKK, By Unidentified photographer — , Public Domain
The KKK originated in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865. Formed by veterans of the Confederate Army, these ex-soldiers named the group from the Greek word ‘kuklos”, which means circle. The whole name means “Circle of Brothers.” This circle or Klan formed mainly in response to Reconstruction.[i] The Reconstruction policies implemented after the civil war created a new social order in the south and throughout the United States. Newly freed blacks were no longer legally considered subjects to whites and this created turmoil as southern whites saw this as a reverse form of slavery. As part of the Reconstruction policies, ex confederates had to reaffirm their allegiance to the Union in order to be eligible to vote. As a result of this lenient policy Southern Whites quickly began enacting laws that would limit black freedom. However, Republicans would insist on Reconstruction taking place in a very different manner. The basic idea of Reconstruction at this point would begin transmuting into a far more complex and difficult task of social equality. This transformation would concentrate efforts of government into policing civil rights and political unrest.[ii]
This new ideology of Reconstruction was pushed through military actions and treating the south like conquered provinces as opposed to reunified states. In the way that original Democratic Reconstruction policies were too lenient with Reconstruction, Republican policies might have been too forceful. Because of radical reconstruction violence against blacks was increased as the KKK rose and terrorized African Americans for many years. The policies that were designed to temper and create social order through acceptance of equality had backfired. The southern view became a view of northern tyranny and oppression was only exasperated through Reconstruction efforts. From southern viewpoint the federal government had no right interfering with ideas of equal rights with states.[iii]
The KKK gained incredible following during this time and had cemented itself in Southern American society. Much of the support came from bitterness over government policies intended to aid African Americans but ignored poor white southerners. For instance, share-cropping was enforced by freedmen and the Freedmen’s Bureau. This system allowed workers to negotiate and gave individuals greater autonomy with work. However, the southern whites viewed these situations in a negative light as sharecropping would lead to widespread poverty and poor planters. Sharecroppers (black and white) were economically confined to almost serf-like conditions of poverty. To work the land, sharecroppers had to buy seed and implements, sometimes from the plantation owner who often charged exorbitant prices against the sharecropper’s next season. Arrangements also typically gave half or less of the crop to the sharecropper, and the sale price in some cases was set by the landowner.[iv]
The viewpoint of the Klan after the civil war was a view tainted by poverty and shattered economics. As radical reconstruction was instituted the white south viewed these new policies as causal forces to the poverty being suffered. Former Confederate Brigadier General George Gordon developed the Klan dogma or Prescript. The Prescript became the fundamental representation of Klan belief in white Supremacy. The Prescript states many ideologies such as “white man’s government” and the belief that “…the reenfranchisement and emancipation of the white men of the South, and the restitution of the Southern people to all their rights…” should be their goal.[v] The allowing of blacks to vote was one of the key issues of reconstruction. How could blacks be given the right to vote while poor white southerners were barred from voting because of reconstruction? This question was answered by the Ku Klux Klan using terrorist tactics against black voters.
The KKK donned white suits and conical hats in order to hide their identities and would lead raiding parties at night. The KKK after the war was considered a terrorist organization that would be responsible for killing thousands of blacks in the south. Southerners in general supported the Klan because they felt that the Klan was helping them. An example of this can be seen shortly after the ending of the war:
In 1866, a quarrel between whites and black ex-soldiers erupted into a full-fledged riot in Memphis, Tennessee. White policemen assisted the mobs in their violent rampage through the black sections of town. By the time the violence ended, 46 people were dead, 70 more were wounded, and numerous churches and schools had been burned [ix].
President Grant would have to enact martial law and create strict laws which were needed to stop the killing of blacks. The KKK with the consent of many southerners was attempting to control or eliminate blacks. For this reason I consider point in history an act of genocide.
From 1865 to 1871 the KKK killed thousands of blacks and republicans in the south. They burned homes and kidnapped black leaders in order to stop the efforts of reconstruction to change social order. The problem was so bad that even southern leaders appealed to the federal government to assist in keeping control of their states. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 allowed President Grant to enter the south and enact martial law where needed and to hunt down Klan members. This action effectively quashed Klan activity[vi].
The Klan would rise again in the south in 1915 in response to several events such as court cases, yellow journalism, and most notably a movie glorifying the Klan.
By Unknown author — Chronicle of the Cinema. (London: Dorling Kindersley), p. 111., Public Domain
Most historians believe that this resurgence of the Klan was caused by large immigration numbers. Many white Americans supported the Klan seeing immigration as a threat to jobs and to morality. During the 1920’s the KKK grew to a membership of four million and became a political force in the United States. Culturally the Klan was viewed by many people as being a force of good trying to save America. At the same time it was also viewed by many people as an aberration. Still the Klan had gained large support from the south and from middle class and poor whites in the north.
The Klan on local levels carried on its campaign of terror with cross burnings and lynching’s in the south. However, the Klan also presented itself as a social and political group in a superficial manner. The Klan would ultimately fragment due to IRS intervention when the organization was forced to disband in 1944 due to tax liens. This would not stop the Klan and would make it even more difficult to watch and investigate because the KKK would now exist in many different groups scattered across the south.
The Klan although today is much smaller than it was in the early part of the 20th century it still carries on a campaign of terror but today is less concerned with burning crosses and lynching. (Although they still carry on these acts.) The KKK concerns itself with collecting guns, explosives, committing crimes, and recruiting members.
Klan ideology, at its core, is centered on the idea that white Americans are threatened by nonwhite minorities and that most of these threats are arranged or encouraged by a sinister Jewish conspiracy. The Klan promotes itself as a way for white Americans to right these perceived wrongs, protect themselves, and strike back at their enemies. At the heart of Klan beliefs is the notion that violence is justified in order to protect white America.[vii]
The Klan today is far more fundamentalist, identifying itself as Christian organizations and professing a mix of religious rhetoric mixed with racial hatred and prejudice. From the 1990’s until present, the Klan has been responsible for murder and bank robberies.[viii] The groups collect and make explosives and have attempted to destroy several public buildings and in one case a natural gas refinery. The Klan while lacking support from the public is still alive and carrying on its campaigns of terror.
[i] Anti-Defamation League (ADL). (2001). Ku Klux Klan. Extremism in America. Retrieved April 25, 2011
[ii] Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
[vii] Chalmers, D. M. (1987). Hooded Americanism: The history of the Ku Klux Klan (3rd ed.). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
[viii] J. K. Akins, (2005) The Ku Klux Klan: America’s Forgotten Terrorists http://www.uhv.edu/asa/articles/KKKAmericasForgottenTerrorists.pdf
[ix] PBS (2012) Rise of the Ku Klux Klan Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/grant-kkk/
Updated March 20, 2021
Vincent Triola. Wed, Mar 03, 2021. The Ku Klux Klan: A Tale of American Terrorism Retrieved from https://vincenttriola.com/blogs/ten-years-of-academic-writing/the-ku-klux-klan-a-tale-of-american-terrorism